2024 will be the year of European Parliament elections. In Hungary, a constitutional amendment will make them coincide with municipal elections. The government has justified the decision on the grounds of cost-effectiveness, but many critics believe there are tactical considerations behind it. There may be something to the argument that the government is trying to attract voters to the polls by merging the two elections, given that European elections are usually not very mobilising.
This problem is somewhat independent of political affiliation. In Europe, we see mainly regional differences in the turnout figures for European Parliament elections. Specifically, Western Europe has a much higher turnout than Eastern Europe. In 2019, for example, 50.66% of Europeans voted in EU elections, but this average percentage does not describe the underlying situation. While turnout in Belgium was 88.47%, in Slovakia it was only 22.74%. Hungary is roughly in the middle of the pack for those EU members that joined after 2004. Turnout figures are volatile from election to election, but certainly do not come close to those of long-standing EU members.
In Hungary, only 43.58% of voters turned out to vote in the last 2019 European Parliament elections. It was the highest turnout ever. The lowest point was in 2014, when only 28.92 percent of Hungarians voted. However, if we break down the turnout data to the level of municipalities, there are some – admittedly isolated – examples where the European elections do seem to have mobilised voters.
However, before we look at the record-breakers, both positive and negative, it is worth considering why EU-level votes might be the object of such apathy. European Parliament elections are held every five years and voters in each EU member state vote to elect their representatives to the European Parliament. Voting is based on party lists, and parties receive a share of the seats in proportion to the number of votes they receive.
In the last election in 2019, for example, Fidesz won 13 seats, DK 4 (the Democratic Coalition) seats, Momentum 2 seats, and MSZP (the Hungarian Socialist Party) and Jobbik 1 each, thus sharing the 21 seats reserved for Hungary. What is interesting, however, is that although MEPs in the European Parliament usually belong to European-level parties, the electors vote for their national parties.
This is how the strange situation arose whereby both those who voted for DK and those who voted for MSZP ended up electing a representative of the European Socialists and Democrats at the European level. Conversely, Hungarians who want to support the largest party in the European Parliament – the centre-right European People’s Party – are out of luck. Fidesz, a Hungarian member of EPP, left it in 2021, after its membership was suspended. Surprisingly, the KDNP (the Christian Democratic People’s Party, which for the past 15 years has always been in a coalition with Fidesz) did not withdraw, but according to the information we have gathered they will not run their own list in the upcoming election.
Anyone who thinks this is confusing, is right. A long-standing criticism of European elections is that it is difficult for voters to understand who their votes support at European level. That is why many politicians and experts suggest that it should be the Europarties that present lists and campaign in European elections. But that is unlikely to be the case in 2024. There is another major problem, though. According to numerous political scientists, European issues are secondary in European elections. Instead, voters tend to use their ballots to reward or punish the performance of national parties, with little thought as to what they would prefer to happen at European level.
However, it seems that there are at least some parts of Hungary where people are happy to vote in the European Parliament elections despite all these issues. Looking at the 2019 polling data, five villages in the Zala county are leading in terms of turnout at both municipal and national level. Felsőszenterzsébet topped the list with a 100% turnout rate – but then, with 18 inhabitants, Felsőszenterzsébet is the second smallest municipality in the country. Incidentally, Iborfia, which has the lowest number of voters, is also in the top five, with 8 out of 9 voters turning out to vote – 88.89% turnout.
Among the towns, Baktalórántháza in the Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg county tops the list, with 2,062 out of 2,759 inhabitants voting, a turnout of 74.74%. Budaörs is in first place among places with more than 10,000 inhabitants, but even there the turnout was only 56.21%, just 13% better than the national average. So the assumption that city dwellers would be more interested in the European elections, at least by Hungarian data, is weak. In Budapest, just over 52% went to the polls, a relatively high proportion compared to large provincial cities. Debrecen, Szeged, Miskolc, Pécs and Győr had turnouts close to the average, between 42% and 47%.
The bottom of the class is Szendrőlád, in Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén county, where the turnout was 14.2%: only 188 voters went to the polls, while 1,136 stayed home. Among the municipalities with more than 10,000 inhabitants, Hajdúsámson ranks lowest with a turnout of 29.84%. Debrecen had the highest number of non-voters after Budapest, with more than 93,000 people in Debrecen choosing to do something else on election day.
It will be interesting to see whether the combination with local elections helps the turnout figures for the 2024 EU Parliament elections in Hungary. Indeed, there is also the possibility that the merged system could change the results. Up till now Hungarians have not been enthusiastic about European elections. If more people vote simply because of the merger, that is unlikely to help Hungarians get to grips with the mysteries of European politics.